Originally published 2/27/2001 — Record-Journal
Writer's Note: As a newspaper journalist early in my career, I wrote "Dancing and Romancing" in February 2001 as a break from the investigative news, crime and politics I often wrote on. And in the style of a narrative news feature, one night, I covered the goings on of a middle school dance. I republish it here, now, as teens and tweens my own daughter's age anticipate and begin experiencing middle school life beyond the quarantine of COVID-19 - Jason J. Barry, aka The Writer Jason James
WALLINGFORD - A whisper overheard. A troubled relationship revealed. A breakup on the night of the dance. Mike Parsons tasted the bitter end of sweet romance last Friday night. He grimaced and collected himself.
"I got dumped," Mike said, "right at the beginning of the dance because I lied to her."
On a row of bleachers across the gym floor, Tina Isola told the story a different way.
"I only want to be his friend but he won't talk to me anymore," said Tina. "I just whispered that I'm going to dump him and he overheard."
Tina, long since moved on, invited a new boyfriend to the dance before engaging in the formality of breaking up with Mike. The new boyfriend sat with Tina in the all-girl encampment, silent and smug.
Down and out at 12 years old, Mike handled heartache the way a sixth-grader best knew how - eating pizza, bouncing shoulder-first off padded gym walls with friends and strategizing about how to meet his future girlfriend, and the one after her.
Pre-teen melodramas played out often at the Wallingford Parks & Recreation middle school dance where students tested dating boundaries and gender identities, but left innocence intact.
"Turmoil, that's the regular turn of events," said dance chaperone Michelle Mele. "That could go on, three or four girlfriends in the course of the dance."
Students arriving at the dance avoided acknowledging the existence of parents altogether. As two girls got out of a car, neither one gave a glance back or a goodbye to the driver - a dad - before closing the door. The father stayed behind, at curbside, until the girls went inside.
Clothes spanned the spectrum from cute to skimpy. Two girls wore spaghetti-strap tank tops that showcased blinking lights stuck to their belly buttons. Some chaperones wondered if students wore to the dance what they left the house in.
In the gym, boys and girls clustered separately on the dance floor, close enough to see and occasionally hear, but still a safe distance away. Boys shoved. Girls whispered. Boys plotted. Girls postured. Looks pin-balled in between.
"This is boys meeting girls on the same territory," said chaperone Pam Rosa. "They have pods, little clusters. They're getting comfortable in their situation. For the boyfriends and girlfriends, it's a way for them to have a date without having a date."
The girls in one group leaned in tightly to talk. A girl who drifted away from the bunch danced a couple of moves alone, out in the open, then hurried back to her girl pack.
Six boys hovered close to a metal bench against a wall by the door. Two girls linked arm-in-arm, braved the odds to talk to them, though staying along the fringe of the boy circle.
"Everyone's shy," said Kristina Vine, 12. "If you like someone, you have your friend go up and talk to them. Now people are starting to talk. At the end, everyone will be with everyone else."
Dating advice at the dance came from those most in the know. With the pedigree of having a girlfriend, sixth-grader David Hicks shared his wisdom with friends who struggled with shyness.
"They're never going to come up to you," he said. "You just go up and talk to them and get in an interesting conversation, that's why they came here."
David couldn't point out his girlfriend, though two friends were convinced of his success. They took his direction without reservation for a chance to share similar fortune.
"I consider myself very shy," said Richard Meyer. "I'll do whatever he says. He's the one with a girlfriend before me."
David announced to Richard that they're off to find a girl. The two walked off boldly among the array of boy pods and girl clusters.
Halfway around the gym, the proud march slowed to a cautious lap, then ended in horseplay and shoving between the two boys.
Toward the center of the gym, three girls danced amongst themselves attempting provocative hip shakes that still looked unsure and experimental.
Near a side door, two girls twirled and dipped with steps exaggerated and slow compared to the music's beat.
"They seem to be a little more about making the scene than we were," said Mike Finoia, a father who peeked inside the dimly lit gym after seeing off his daughter and her friends. "I like to tease them because my older one hates when I tease them. 'No Kissing.' "
Jason J. Barry is the prior journalistic monicker of The Writer Jason James. As a daily print journalist, Jason has served as a staff writer for the Record-Journal, the New Britain Herald and the Hartford Courant.
In 2004, he departed from writing for a decade-long career in law enforcement, where he served as a uniformed police officer, and later as a DEA Special Agent.
In 2014, Jason returned to his craft as an essayist. His work is featured regularly in TheGroncho.com literary site and at Prattlon.com, and he is involved in developing several book-length projects. He lives with his family outside San Diego.